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News From New Orleans

Mayor Ray Nagin speaks to displaced citizens in Memphis.



When New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin spoke at a town hall meeting last week in Memphis, it was clear that this was a man in touch with his constituents.

"What UP New Orleans!" Nagin bellowed as he began his address. It wasn't long before the nearly 1,000 displaced citizens at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church gave the mayor a standing ovation.

After being introduced by Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, Nagin spoke for three hours, taking questions from the crowd for much of that time.

To begin, he tried to sum up the scenario in the city right before Hurricane Katrina occurred. "People were out having a good time. I was saying, get out of the city," said Nagin, who described Katrina as a deceptive storm.

"He didn't say that," came a whisper from the crowd.

Nagin was clear that housing was the biggest challenge New Orleans faced. "I still don't live in my house," he said. Yet he tried to encourage residents about the city's progress. "We are improving every day, especially in terms of critical civil services."

Attendees were told that 60 percent of the city now has electricity and 50 percent has gas.

"The area we struggle with the most is the 9th Ward," said Nagin, explaining that the area had actually been flooded twice, by Katrina and Rita. He then announced that starting December 1st the 9th Ward would be open to returning citizens, drawing another cheer from the crowd.

Nagin tried to encourage people to return by discussing the difficult paradox of available work.

"It is kind of like the chicken and the egg. We need people to reopen businesses and we need open businesses to encourage people to return." Nagin said that 1,100 businesses have received permission to reopen and that FEMA trailers will be available while homes are being gutted and repaired.

"I stand by him," said former 7th Ward resident Wilhelmina Mathieu, "but as a former renter I'm planning on staying in Memphis for at least three years. I wouldn't go near a trailer park in New Orleans."

At times, the mayor was critical of the support his city has received from the federal government. Yet the mayor also admitted that given the chance there were things he would have done differently.

"To me this is to be expected," said Carl Honore, a former resident of New Orleans East. "He is giving political answers, not details that help me know when I can go back and rebuild."

In a city that is struggling to rebuild, however, the mayor's words also touched some hearts. Barbara Jordan was also displaced from New Orleans East.

"He made you feel like you weren't alone, like someone cared," she said.

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